Written & researched by Gerland Bell
“Why on Earth would Vikings mint coins?” I hear you ask. Surely they would just raid a rich monastery or undefended town and take what they wanted? Who needs money if you’re just taking stuff anyway?
But the Vikings were also traders, so coinage came in handy – trying to get change for a gold ingot must have been murder! Barter was probably as inconvenient, and the Vikings were certainly familiar with money – archaeologists have found plenty of coins, ranging from Anglo-Saxon pennies to Islamic dirhems, in Scandinavia. Many coins and items of jewellery were cut into pieces, probably to allow a fairer share of the spoils.
It was surely also the opportunity to turn a tidy profit on the process of minting that attracted Viking leaders to it – anyone handing in bullion to be transformed into coins would expect to pay a price to the moneyer and his boss, the king or chief, for the convenience of having coins.
So it was that, in the early 9th century, a now-forgotten ‘king’ in the port and market town of Hedeby, near the base of the Jutland peninsula, decided to mint coins. Many were copies of Carolingian pennies, but some very unusual silver pennies were minted that were distinctly Viking.
These coins are extremely rare, and it is unlikely that any will ever come up for sale. On about 15 examples a ship features on one side – either the bulky shape of a merchant ship on some specimens, or a Viking longship, complete with shields on the gunwales, on some of the others. And what do we find on the obverse of these? Strange, contorted figures of indeterminate animals or, on one or two, the ‘Odin’s Head’ design from Series X Sceattas!
The Hedeby mint soon ceased production; these were unstable times in Scandinavia, where many kings were crowned and soon met violent deaths. No coins were minted in Scandinavia for another century and a half. The next Viking coins were minted in England!
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there is a significant entry for the year 866: In this year a ‘Great Heathen Army’ arrived in East Anglia. Yes, instead of raiding the Vikings had now come to stay (as bosses!).
In just a few years the ‘Great Heathen Army’ had swept all before it, conquering the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms one by one until only Wessex was left. But that was where the conquest was halted, thanks to the only English monarch to earn the sobriquet ‘Great’ – Alfred. He regained much of England and converted the leader of the Viking army to Christianity.
So the Vikings settled with the half of England that they still controlled, to be known as the ‘Danelaw’, and took control. This meant striking coins for a society based on trade, and the first Anglo-Viking coins were imitations of Alfred’s coins – copyright was yet to be invented!
A tiny number are known of the Viking leader Guthrum, struck under the name ‘Athelstan’, which was the Christian name given him when he agreed to be baptized after Alfred defeated him at the battle of Eddington.
The Vikings of East Anglia struck coins to commemorate a local saint, Edmund, only a few years after seizing the kingdom. This was quite ironic as Edmund had been the pious Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia who had resisted the Vikings until, in 869, they famously martyred him. Less than 30 years later, they were commemorating his sainthood on coins!
St. Edmund memorial pennies are not too rare, and even halfpennies occasionally turn up. The original issues must have run into hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
Further north, in York, the Viking kings of Northumbria also struck their own money. Like the St. Edmund pennies, the early ones don’t exhibit a great deal of artistic imagination – a ‘patriarchal’ or a large cross on one side, and a small cross on the other. But later issues featured more martial themes – swords, bows and arrows, ravens (birds sacred to the god of war, Odin), and a symbol of Thor’s hammer. The message they were trying to get across is obvious!
The Viking dominance in the Danelaw was always under attack and, in 954, the last Viking king of York (the intimidatingly-named Eric Bloodaxe) was killed. From that point on the Danelaw was ruled by Kings of England. But that certainly wasn’t the end of the Viking story.
Fast forward a few decades and we come to the disastrous reign of Aethelred II, nicknamed the ‘Unready’. His advisers either weren’t very good, or downright traitorous, and Aethelred’s government lurched from one disastrous policy decision to another. Deja-vu, anyone?
His policy of paying the Vikings to go away was only partially-successful. In that they went away, but then came back for more money. Aethelred seldom fought off the attackers, but when he died his son, Edmund Ironside, proved that the martial spirit was not completely dead in Anglo-Saxon society. He fought at least two battles with the Vikings, inflicting heavy defeats.
Unfortunately he didn’t last long; when he was sitting on the ‘toilet’ (a hole dug over a large pit!) an assassin, probably one of his father’s more treacherous courtiers, crept into the large hole beneath the ‘toilet’ and killed him with an upwards sword thrust. Makes me cringe to even think about it!
Edmund’s rival, the Danish king Cnut, became king of England too. He was a fair-minded and just ruler, whose coinage of silver pennies is not rare, and displays artistic merit as well as exclusively Christian themes – signs of pagan worship were long gone.
His sons, Harold I and Harthacnut, had very short reigns by contrast, and their coins are much rarer. Stylistically, they were mostly a continuation of their father’s coins.
That marks the end of the Viking coinage in England, unless you include the Normans (descended from Viking settlers in the north of France, hence the name ‘Normandy’..).
Meanwhile the Vikings had also conquered large areas of Ireland and what would become Scotland. In this era Scotland consisted of a few small, feuding kingdoms. No coinage existed in Scotland until well after the Viking period, but in Ireland the Vikings of Dublin minted coins.
Dublin, by the late 10th century, had become a major trading centre. The Viking leaders who held this city styled themselves ‘kings’ and issued their own coinage. The silver pennies were degenerate copies of the contemporary Aethelred pennies, with nonsensical legends. When the Irish, under Brian Boru, evicted the Norse from Dublin, it spelt the end of coinage in Ireland for two centuries.
In conclusion, the Viking coinages were products of their time. Frequently using novel designs but occasionally imitative, they represent a fascinating strand in the coinage of Europe at a time when nations were being forged from the ruins of the past.